My 10-year-old daughter and I were hemming and hawing on where to eat Monday night when I finally said, “Emma, how about you taking me to Red Lobster for my birthday?”
“OK,” she said, before pausing. “But I don’t have any money.”
“Endless Shrimp” provided another proud daddy-daughter moment, with the shrimp eating her first shrimp, but we got caught up in that freezing monsoon or whatever that was while leaving Monday night, and I woke up Tuesday feeling seasick.
That’s not how the Taco Stand likes going into a food tasting event, like the one Amsoil Arena gave to local media members on Tuesday. I like to be clicking on all cylinders, like a new Corvette, or more appropriate in this case, a rusty dump truck. I can’t have a crimped appetite, because I need to sample each thing not once, but thrice. You know, just to make sure I have it right.
Nothing brings out media members like free food, in particular, sports media. It was hard to tell if it was Duluth or Dallas, given the numbers, as if we have six daily papers and 15 television stations. The News Tribune alone had five representatives, and I was surprised there weren’t more (outgoing sports editor Rick Weegman never saw a food freebie he didn’t like, same with Superior Telegram sports editor Kenny Olson … if you feed them, they will come).
Longtime Twin Ports sports personality Tom Hansen was one of the first in line.
“Research,” he said.
Amy Carlson, director of food service for the DECC, and concessions managers Jerry Carpenter and Dolly Thygeson unveiled seven new concession offerings in front of the Enger Tower concession stand. Thygeson said they “tried to make it as diverse as possible,” and to that, they succeeded, with gluten-free options also available.
The new selections:
Fish tacos ($9): The beer-battered cod is excellent, to the point where I say why cover it (with red and green cabbage, tomatoes and avocado poblano sauce), discover it. A plus is that it comes with chips and salsa. This is more personal preference, as I realize some people love fish and shrimp that way, but I’d opt for straight fish, homey, three pieces at $8.50, as my co-worker, Minnesota Duluth hockey writer Matt Wellens, did on Fridays last year.
“Don’t mess with something that’s already good,” agreed Sam Ali with Fox 21.
Hand-dipped corn dog ($6): Hard to argue with this one. All-beef hot dog hand-dipped in cornmeal, paired with a creamy raspberry “Minnestalgia” pepper jam, based out of McGregor. While some folks may be thrown off by something that sweet on their corn dog, like dessert on a stick, Carpenter, a chef, said the combination isn’t as unusual as it might appear.
“A corn dog is salty on the inside and sweet on the outside, and that kind of matches a Monte Cristo (sandwich),” Carpenter said. “It’s unique. It’s fun and it’s different. It’s our own DECC thing.”
Wild rice burger ($9): One of Wellens’ favorites, this thing comes fully loaded with roasted red peppers, spinach and melted fontina cheese. It’s hard to eat without making a mess, so grab some napkins, and in keeping with a local theme, the patty is produced by KellyG’s in Bovey. Carpenter is my kind of guy, a meat eater, and he is the foodie behind the food at Amsoil Arena. He isn’t afraid to eat vegetarian dishes, but they better be good. “It can’t taste like sadness,” he said. “Nobody wants sadness. I’m not about that.”
White cheddar mac and cheese with candied bacon ($6): The name here pretty much says it all. This will be popular with children, and my only gripe was that I wanted more bacon … duh!
Buffalo chicken pizza ($6 by the slice, $29 for whole, same as specialty already on the menu): Another favorite of Wellens, and me, too, it’s always hard to argue with pizza done right. Buffalo chicken, spicy, but not overly spicy, is combined with plenty of mozzarella and a blue cheese crumble blend, celery slices (subtle, not overpowering) and drizzled with ranch dressing. The slices are large, and by this time, I was plenty full, but trudged on, you know, for my job. I predict this will be a popular seller. It will go down well with beer, which will be served in cans this year, making service more efficient while providing a greater variety.
Philly cheesesteak ($9): New York roast, onions and green peppers are sandwiched between two types of Swiss cheese on a hoagie bun. A time-honored classic, this will go down well with those who understand the glorious union that can be achieved when you combine steak and caramelized onions, unlike Wellens, who almost got a plastic fork jammed into his hand when he began plucking the onions out (I lost all respect).
Ice cream floats ($6): Another item that is sure to be popular among children, you can either have your float with traditional root beer or orange soda, which combines with vanilla Cedar Crest ice cream to create a liquid (or mostly liquid) creamsicle. And while I was nursing a sore throat, this was the perfect elixir. While last on our list, this was actually one of the first items we tried, which bucks the natural order of things. I told Wellens that I always save dessert for last, per an old family tradition, and he said, “You lie.”
These new selections combine with staple items already on the menu to put Amsoil Arena light years ahead of the concessions that used to be served during Bulldogs games at the DECC. The selections don’t come lightly, but from an offseason spent tinkering and experimenting with what might go over best.
Carpenter and Thygeson bounce ideas off each other, and then they pitch their ideas to vendors.
“We’ll tell them we want to try macaroni and cheese, and they’ll bring us whatever they got,” Carpenter. “I think we tried nine different types of taco meat this year.”
When it comes time to decide which is best, Amsoil Arena issues an “all call,” where anyone there can come try samples in a blind vote. Carpenter said it wasn’t hard to round up volunteers for ice cream day.
“We have a pretty cool and unique situation here,” Carpenter said. “It’s not just me and Dolly and Amy’s taste buds. We have ice guys here, we have concession people here, we have electrical people, engineers and business office people here. We can have an all call and bring 40 taste buds to the table, and something will rise to the top, and then we know we have what will please the masses.”
They sure do.
My only regret is that the one time the “all call” included me, I left way too much food on the table.
“Taco” Jon Nowacki covers sports for the News Tribune but has never turned down a free meal. He can be reached at email@example.com or (218) 723-5305.